At such an early stage in the European club season, it was going to take something special to make a statement on the title chases in Italy and France, but Roma and Monaco both delivered that, albeit in very different ways.
After a seismic Sunday on the continent, we go into the international break with far more clearly defined ideas on what might await us in Serie A and Ligue 1 in the months to come.
Roma's impressive victory over Juventus at Stadio Olimpico was followed in the evening by a thoroughly convincing win by French champions Paris Saint-Germain at Monaco. In both cases, despite the varying margins of the wins (Roma eventually clung on to a 2-1 win, while PSG coasted home 3-0), we were left with a strong sense of exactly where the respective challengers are at in terms of title ambitions.
For starters, the Giallorossi’s win was a ringing endorsement of coach Rudi Garcia in a calendar year that has hardly been full of them. Last season’s Champions League group-stage humiliation by Bayern Munich had appeared to leave its mark. Post-winter break, Roma were drained of the swagger that had characterised their play under Garcia, and they lacked the personality to tip tight games in their favour, as evidenced by their drawing 10 out of 22 Serie A matches after Christmas.
Garcia, it seemed, was unable to find a way around the team's psychological hump, and despite a raft of impressive signings (including Edin Dzeko and Mohamed Salah), little appeared to have changed by the time the first game of this season came around. A trip to Verona produced yet another draw at the end of a limp performance.
So it was a surprise, then, to see Roma play with such authority against Juve. It was plenty of exactly what Garcia’s side should be but haven’t been often enough in recent months. The midfield three of Radja Nainggolan, opening goalscorer Miralem Pjanic and the experienced Seydou Keita were dominant, and in front of them, the pace and trickery of Salah and Iago Falque had their perfect foil in Dzeko.
The Bosnian striker is perhaps the biggest area of upgrade in the lineup, and his headed winner suggested he will be exactly the big-game player Garcia wants and expects him to be. For now, this is as big as it gets and serves notice that Roma mean business in terms of challenging the champions.
If only Monaco could say the same. The board in the Principality have had an even busier summer, with both recruits to and exits from the squad comfortably making it into double figures. Despite the colossal turnover, there was a sense that Monaco would be alright. After all, last season’s exceptional defence (which was Ligue 1’s most miserly, conceding only five in nine Champions League matches) was about collective organisation rather than individual pieces.
Leonardo Jardim used no fewer than nine different centre-back partnerships last season, but whatever the personnel, the solidity remained the same. The hiding handed out by Laurent Blanc’s side was reminiscent of the disorganised early weeks of Jardim’s tender, when a side short on physical conditioning was consistently undone on the counter-attack and by its own high line.
Back then, a few teething problems as Jardim adapted to France and Ligue 1’s standards of physical rigour were to be expected. This time, there’s no such excuse. In 45 second-half minutes against PSG, Monaco let in three times as many goals as they did in the course of two entire league matches against the same opposition in the last campaign.
Of all the elements that could have let Monaco down in the opening weeks of this season, the last thing that you’d have expected it to be would have been the defence. It had already done so in the Champions League play-off with Valencia, a tie that Monaco certainly shaded over the two legs but in which they were frequently undone by shoddy work at the back, from Rodrigo’s opener at the Mestalla to Fabinho’s fumble that let in Alvaro Negredo in the return—goals that were conceded in the first five minutes of either leg.
Monaco were guided into the clash with PSG by a centre-back pairing of Andrea Raggi and Ricardo Carvalho, two players who Jardim would almost trust with his life. Yet they were powerless against the tide on Sunday night, and had Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Co. found their shooting boots before half-time, it could have been an avalanche.
The run of play suggested that Monaco’s problems could be further up the pitch, as had appeared to be the case in the Valencia tie. Jeremy Toulalan had an inexperienced (if talented) partner in Adama Traore in central midfield, while Elderson had only Stephan El Shaarawy as cover on the left. With reinforcements like the on-loan Milan man, the excellent young Thomas Lemar and Portugal flier Ivan Cavaleiro, Monaco are perhaps better set to entertain this season, but less so to defend en bloc.
It’s too soon, of course, to draw definitive conclusions in either Italy or France just yet. The queue of doubters readying themselves to write off Juve already is ridiculous. Granted, the loss of the first two Serie A games of the season is an unwelcome club record, but the post-Champions League reshuffle after the departures of Carlos Tevez, Arturo Vidal and Andrea Pirlo was always going to be a tricky one.
Following the international break, Massimiliano Allegri’s midfield (the team’s main area of weakness to date) will be considerably reinforced by Sami Khedira and Claudio Marchisio returning. As much as Vidal and (especially) Pirlo are mourned, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Marchisio was Juve’s outstanding performer in the Champions League final in Berlin.
It must also be noted that 10-man Juve, even after being outplayed, were just a fine Wojciech Szczesny save from Leonardo Bonucci away from snatching a late point in Rome. Logic insists that they must remain favourites to retain their title.
As for Monaco, a title challenge looks ambitious at this point in time, with the gulf between their ambitions and those of PSG captured by the sight of Layvin Kurzawa, the left-back they sold to Blanc’s side earlier in the week, sauntering down the touchline just before full-time, nonchalantly conducting a telephone conversation in his new club’s tracksuit. He was one of Monaco’s best, and PSG have no need to rush him in.
Yet Jardim’s teams know how to upset the odds. The Portuguese coach was on the brink of getting the sack last autumn before pulling his side back up the table. They have plenty of odds to overturn, but that’s what they thrive on. It will be an interesting journey—just as Roma’s will be.